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Americans want to legalize marijuana – their senators don’t

Forty years ago, President Reagan famously referred to marijuana as “probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.” Two weeks ago, the U.S. House voted to legalize it, marking the latest chapter in how elected officials have evolved on the issue in recent decades.

Except in the U.S. Senate, that is, where the wall calendars haven’t flipped since 1981 and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act is expected to stall. The Senate version hasn’t even been introduced and is already facing stiff resistance from the GOP and fellow Democrats alike, further delaying progress to remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances.  

Today recreational marijuana use is legal in 18 states as well as Washington, D.C. and Guam. Thirty-seven states have legalized it in some form. An overwhelming number of adults of all ages across the country support it. A 2021 Pew Research Center study puts the statistic at a staggering 91 percent. That’s noteworthy because, in today’s divided America, 91 percent of adults rarely agree on anything.  

The economic arguments favoring marijuana legalization are indisputable. In New Mexico, cannabis sales totaled over $5 million the very first weekend after a recent law approved adult recreational use. State officials believe the law will generate $300 million in revenue in the first year alone, money that will address food insecurity and housing issues, and boost economic development. If legalized nationally, experts believe it would generate over $128 billion in tax revenue and create nearly 1.6 million new jobs. 

The advantages of medicinal marijuana today are well understood. Doctors have noted its positive effects in treating chronic pain afflicting millions across the country. And it’s a safer alternative to many opioids that can be destructively addictive. There have even been cases where patients have used medical marijuana to wean themselves off of addictive opioids to keep their pain management under control. Sadly, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny veterans access to cannabis despite arguments from service organizations of its many benefits, especially in addressing suicide prevention and long-term pain.   

Legalization saves taxpayers money, as greater access to medical marijuana means fewer prescriptions for pain medications. One study showed Medicare saved an estimated $165 million in 2013 from states where it had been legalized. The same study projected Medicare Part D spending would have declined by roughly $470 million that same year had medical marijuana been legalized across the country. 

Legalization also advances the cause of racial and social justice. Today dispensaries face major obstacles to gaining lines of credit — or even creating a simple business checking account — as banks are leery of working with businesses retailing illegal substances in the eyes of the federal government. Minority populations are already at a disadvantage in receiving bank approval for business loans across all industry sectors due to racial bias. Without national legalization, the ability of a minority dispensary owner to receive a business loan is essentially a non-starter. 

What’s more, while marijuana use is equal among African American and white populations, African Americans are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Legalizing it nationally will reduce the number of needless marijuana arrests that disproportionately impact minority communities. A separate bill introduced in the House seeks to advance equal justice in this regard by creating greater symmetry between alcohol and cannabis punishments within America’s Armed Forces. Another worthy legislative effort, should it pass, that’s likely to face a steep climb in the Senate. 

There are signs some Senate skeptics are coming around. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) served as the governor of Colorado back in 2012 and rejected a state legalization ballot measure at the time because he thought it sent the wrong message to kids. Today he believes otherwise. “I think we’ve proven and demonstrated that there is no increase in experimentation among teenagers,’ he said. “There is no change in frequency of use, no change in driving while high — all the things we most worried about didn’t come to pass.” Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has signaled he is open to legalizing medical marijuana.  

One of the biggest misperceptions about marijuana, which we’ve learned over the past 40 years, is that it’s not a “gateway” to other drug use. There’s little credible science to support the theory. Yet the body of real-world evidence shows that legalized use brings valuable public and social health benefits.  

The Senate’s outdated mindset is standing in the way of important reforms that can further improve social equity, generate billions in tax revenue and spur job creation by making it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses and grow the economy. One would think a GOP-controlled Senate would be in favor of these outcomes. Yet they continue to stick their heads in the sand. 

Those pursuing Senate seats in November who want to mobilize young voters would be served well to include marijuana reform as part of their legislative agenda. It’s an issue young people care about. And it will move the Senate in a direction that the rest of the nation has already accepted. 

As a growing number of states legalize recreational marijuana it seems odd so many of our elected leaders continue to oppose it. Voters have moved on. The Senate should, too. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.  

Tags Department of Veterans Affairs John Hickenlooper Lindsey Graham marijuana legalization MORE Act Politics of the United States Ronald Reagan

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